At the foundation of reggae is the drum.

In the 1970s, session drummers were to reggae and dub what guitarists were to rock – game-changers who could shift the tide of the music. Carlton “Santa” Davis has been in demand as a drummer since the early ‘70s, when he played in the group Soul Syndicate. He’s worked with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear, and today tours with Bob’s son Ziggy. In reggae lore he is associated with one of dub’s iconic sounds – the “flying cymbals” – exemplified by Johnny Clarke’s trend-sparking 1974 hit ‘None Shall Escape The Judgement’.

Actually the term is misleading; the distinctive hissing comes from the hi-hat, not the cymbal. And, as Carlton has stated repeatedly and with growing exasperation, he did not actually create the pattern, which had been in circulation since ska and even before. But what he did create was the backbone to many of his era’s immortal rhythms, which have been passed down through generations.

Santa is back to visit Kingston from California, where most of Soul Syndicate relocated in the ‘80s, and is staying at the home of guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, the core member they left behind (in 2015 the band reunited and recorded a new album set for release later this year). Outside in Chinna’s yard, musicians are jamming – as they do most days. Santa is not slightly built like fellow Jamaican drumming legends Sly Dunbar or Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. He’s a tall, bespectacled bear of a man with a white beard and an American-tinged accent which becomes more pronounced when he becomes animated. He sits at a table beneath a black-and-white picture of the island’s original super-group, the Skatalites, whose drummer Lloyd Knibbs was a huge influence on Santa – but more of that later.

The story of how Santa got his nickname is well-known: as a boy he was roller-skating and fell on some hot tar, which made his face turn red. It was Christmas so his friends teased him saying he looked like Santa. The name stuck. He started playing, aged 11, in his church’s marching band, the St Peter Claver Drum Corps.

“I used to play the snare, then the tenor, which we call the tom-tom nowadays, the bass drum and cymbals,” he recalls. “I was an all-rounder.” As the corps’ quartermaster it was his job to look after the equipment in storage. “The room had a big bass drum, and there was a pedal. So I said, ‘Let me put a drum set together’.”

“King Tubby’s era brought that cymbal to life”

His attempts to use the makeshift kit attracted the attention of Bobby Aitken, brother of ska singer Laurel Aitken and leader of professional ensemble the Carib Beats, who was giving guitar lessons in the church. The music of the day was rocksteady – the precursor of reggae with the same ‘one-drop’ beat. “I was playing the regular ‘one-two’, hitting the kick drum and coming back, which is what we are doing today. [Aitken] said, ‘Nah man – drop the snare and the kick same time and play an eighth note here – that’s rocksteady’.”

Aitken let the teenage Santa sit at a proper drum kit during a show in church. “They had this small throne. Picture me trying to sit on this little saddle, trying to balance? It felt weird trying to put my foot on the kick and the hi-hat. That was 1967, ‘68. I sucked at it! I was still in the drum corps. I wasn’t a drummer.”

In 1969 Santa left the corps and joined his first band, Kofi Kali and the Graduates. “They didn’t have a resident drummer. A bunch of guys used to pass through like Horsemouth Wallace. So I said, ‘OK, I can play drums,’ and started learning! You could say I taught myself to get around the drums right there. That’s where my whole life started to change.”

The Graduates aren’t famous today but Kofi was well-connected in the scene. He had an electronics shop on Spanish Town Road at the corner of East Avenue opposite Maxfield Avenue – a stone’s throw from Kingston’s top singers. Santa met Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson and Alton Ellis. “All these people one by one. That was a central point of downtown Kingston. Trench Town just across the way. Greenwich Town just over there. It was easy access.”

At the time rocksteady was transitioning into a new more danceable beat – reggae. But from a drummer’s perspective, not much changed. “Just the guitar and keyboard. In rocksteady the guitar was doing ‘check check check’. Then reggae becomes ‘check-eh check-eh check-eh’ – just a little riff change and the shuffle on the keyboard. On drums you’d still be doing a one drop.”

The first tune he played on was for producer Joe Gibbs (Santa can’t remember the title) and soon after he would join bassist Fully Fullwood and guitarist Tony Chin in a collective they’d started as the Rhythm Raiders and renamed Soul Syndicate. “They had some other drummers before. Horsemouth used to play with them, a guy named Max Edwards who has passed away. The drummer at the time was named Denny – a weekend musician. He had a corporate job and was getting married.

“I was playing the Graduates and some guy said, ‘Fully and those guys are looking for a drummer.’ I grew up with Fully and them, our parents were friends. My stepfather used to work for Fully’s father. So I did the audition and I was in. That’s where I totally improved – with Soul Syndicate. Everything got built right there. Doing a lot of nightclubs, going to the country doing shows. After that the studio came in.”

Soul Syndicate performing circa 1978
Soul Syndicate performing circa 1978

The band caught the ear of a shrewd indie producer named Bunny Lee, who booked them for their debut session, a 1970 recording by the Twinkle Brothers. “That’s where we got noticed by other producers. All of a sudden our name started to go out there. People were like, ‘Man! These guys bad!’”

The same year another young label owner, Niney the Observer, visited the band’s rehearsal spot at Fully’s home with a song titled ‘Blood & Fire’. “He didn’t have any money. He was asking us to help him out and then he would pay us later. We said OK, because we wanted the publicity.”

They got it when the record’s incendiary lyrics were banned on the radio. “It didn’t make a difference because we weren’t the problem,” shrugs Santa. Niney also put them on some of the greatest 45s by Jamaica’s favourite singer, Dennis Brown. “We got involved with ‘Westbound Train’ and ‘Cassandra’. Actually I didn’t play on Cassandra – they wanted me but I was working someplace else. Sticky [Thompson, the percussionist] didn’t have any drumsticks. The story is he broke a broom in half!”

The group even played on some of Lee Scratch Perry’s recordings with the Wailers, cutting the original version of ‘Sun Is Shining’ and what was meant to be ‘Duppy Conqueror’. Perhaps feeling that the jagged Soul Syndicate sound didn’t suit a track about good toppling evil, Scratch and the Wailers re-recorded it with go-to musicians the Upsetters and utilised the Syndicate’s backing for spooky supernatural chant ‘Mr Brown’. “There was this old myth about a coffin running around Jamaica,” he explains. “Bob and them wrote a song saying, ‘Mr Brown riding around,’ and they used that rhythm for that.”

But it was Bunny Lee who broke Santa’s name in the business with ‘None Shall Escape The Judgement’. Forty years on, Santa has an uneasy relationship with the famous drum pattern due to continued controversy over its genesis. The hissing hi-hat can be heard in Jamaican music as early as the Skatalites; Lloyd Knibbs used it on Joya Landis’ ‘Moonlight Lover’. Sly Dunbar also recast it in reggae on a 1973 cover of Al Green’s ‘Here I Am (Come and Take Me)’ by Al Brown and Skin Flesh and Bones.

But it was Santa who re-popularised it – and, like Sly, he was influenced by US soul. “That style of cymbals has been around for ages,” he confirms. “‘Moonlight Lover’ was before I even started recording. That was one of me and Chinna’s favourite songs.

“There was this group called MFSB back in the disco days – Earl Young, the drummer, used it in a lot of songs – tsh tsh tsh. Me and Sly had a good relationship so we used to talk about Earl Young a lot. That day at Treasure Isle studio we were doing ‘None Shall Escape the Judgement’ and I decided I wanted to play this style of cymbal today. I just intended to play it on this one song. I didn’t think it was going to be that great an impact. I didn’t play it to say, ‘this is a new thing’.”

Santa credits the island-wide success of his drumming in the song to legendary dub mixer King Tubby, whose squelching hi-pass filter on the flipside pushed his playing to the fore. In fact he acknowledges Tubby for making drummers so important in the music. “At the time, King Tubby was experimenting with mixing and he started getting this ‘swish swish’ that started exploding. In the early days drums weren’t really focused on. It was mainly vocals. But the Tubbys era brought in the low end – big bass and big drums. Tubbys brought that cymbal to life.

“The weirdest thing is I have to keep defending myself. I don’t want to be seen as an imposter”

“Bunny Lee called it ‘flying cymbals’ because we used to eat a lot of chicken. We used to say, ‘Let’s eat some flyers.’ I started to hear, ‘Man, that flying cymbal thing you played!’ Then all of a sudden, everybody wants it into a song. For that whole period I was bombarded with it. I got tired of it to be honest. I said, ‘Look, all the music cannot sound like tsh tsh tsh’ – but they were paying their money so I had no choice. I played it on a lot of songs. It made everyone say, ‘Santa Davis – the flying cymbal’. I never claimed ownership of it. I was just in a moment where I played it and it became something.”

And so Santa became linked with the flying cymbals, just as Sly Dunbar would with the double-drum “rockers” of the mid-to-late ‘70s, and Style Scott would with the heavy rub-a-dub of the early ‘80s. Which was fine until, years later, Santa says he was misquoted in an interview with Modern Drummer that brought him into conflict with his colleagues. “[The interviewer] asked about the flying cymbals and I said the same thing: ‘Look, this has been around for ages but when I played it – the way it was mixed and focused on – it became something.’ Next thing I read the guy is saying, ‘Santa Davis said he was the first person who played this thing.’

“Sly confronted me. He was taken aback. I said, ‘Come on. You know me better than that. I’m not that type of person. They put it like that.’ That’s why I’m scared of interviews. I would never take credit for something I didn’t do. My work has proved itself.”

Santa’s CV post-Cymbals suggests he doesn’t have anything to prove. In the second half of the ‘70s he would play with Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear, and record on two of Bob’s greatest late-period songs. He drummed on ‘Africa Unite’ from 1979’s Survival album when Bob found him waiting for Spear to arrive for a studio session. “He said, ‘Wh’appen, him no come yet? Musician deyah and studio time a bun? Let me go make some music.’”

It’s also Santa – not Bob’s regular sticksman, the late great Carlton Barrett – supplying that roll on ‘Coming In From The Cold’, which opens 1980’s Uprising. “I came to studio looking for somebody. They were trying to make a song but there was no drummer. Bob was like, ‘Close the door! Don’t let that man get away!’ That was one take.”

Santa would then take over from Sly Dunbar as touring drummer for Bob’s ex-bandmate, the fiercely rebellious Peter Tosh. He’d known Peter since the Wailers, when Soul Syndicate played their ‘High Tide Low Tide’. Bassist Robbie Shakespeare brought him in to record the suggestive ‘Ketchy Shuby’ on Tosh’s 1976 LP Legalise It – but commitments with Jimmy Cliff prevented a bigger role. By 1981, Tosh, who had his eye on Santa all the while, got his man. “Sly and Robbie were getting ready to do their independent thing. One day I left my house and was in Halfway Tree. I heard a horn blowing, and it was Peter. He said ‘I want you to saddle up. I’m going to Europe and when I come back I’m going to need you’.”

Santa stayed with Peter until the end. He was at Tosh’s house when gunmen burst in and murdered the star in 1987. Santa was shot in the crossfire and survived. “I shared some great moments with that brother,” he says, struggling to find the words. “On tour, at his home. I used to visit Peter every day. That tragic night I visited him. I didn’t think that would be the last time. A bunch of knuckleheads came in because they wanted money. It was just greed. Peter never deserved that. For the good purpose he served on earth and what he would be doing today. Look at the marijuana movement today. Peter started that revolution. He got beaten at this police station in Halfway Tree. Beaten within an inch of his life for some weed.”

When Santa relocated to California to join Fully and the rest of Soul Syndicate, he continued to get work. He joined the group Big Mountain for a stint and currently tours with Bob’s eldest son Ziggy. “I was in California when he was getting ready for his solo project tour. He wanted a drummer and didn’t want to send to Jamaica so his engineer Errol Brown told him about me. I got a couple more people I knew and we put the band together.” He has put out two solo albums – 2008’s instrumental set The Zone and last year’s impressive vocal disc Watch You Livity, mixing dread deep roots with jazz and soul. “I’m just doing something – not to just be a backing guy. So when I leave here they can say, ‘There is a song he made for himself’.”

Despite the new Soul Syndicate album also in the works, he says the reunion is no big deal. “I never left Soul Syndicate. People left for the States – Fully and Tony – and then I left too. We all fell in love with California from the early days. But we have never been apart. Chinna is here and I think Keith Sterling lives here, but we always had interests and every now and again we come together. As long as we’re alive, Soul Syndicate is still alive. That is why we said ‘Let us do this album.’ It seemed like the right time.”

In John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Carleton Young’s news editor utters the line, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In the 1970s, reggae musicians weren’t always credited properly, and the legend principle still applies. Santa still has to keep explaining that he didn’t invent the flying cymbals. He’s done so much, and yet people want to talk about the thing he didn’t do.

“I just say, ‘It’s life.’ I’m not going to lose sleep over that. It’s out there but the weirdest thing is I have to keep defending myself. I do a radio show in the evening in the States. I go on and say, ‘The flying cymbals – I didn’t create it, I didn’t say I created it’.

“I don’t want to be seen as an impostor. I’m not that person. A lot of time people say, ‘That’s you on drums there,’ and it’s a wicked song. I could say, ‘Yeah that’s me,’ but I tell them, ‘That’s Sly.’ ‘That’s Horsemouth.’”

He continues, perhaps inspired by the musicians outside playing Bob Marley’s ‘Waiting in Vain’. “If something is good that’s just paying homage. If you hear me playing a Carlie Barrett riff then that’s just me paying respect, because he was one of the greatest innovators as far as drumming is concerned in Jamaica. It’s like cooking. If you cook with a certain seasoning I’ll say, ‘Damn, what you use? I’m going to try that’.”

Recently the Jamaican media has been concerned about foreigners – particularly Americans – copying reggae. Santa doesn’t view it that way. “I don’t see it as copying. I would be sad if reggae music was sitting in Jamaica not going anywhere. I would be disappointed if nobody around the world was playing it. I would be like, ‘What’s wrong with our music?’ As long as they show respect for the place and people that created it, I’m good.

“It’s like Bob said, ‘The music is going to get bigger until it reaches the right people.’ The food is being shared around the world and whoever likes the taste, take a bite – it’s cool.”

Read this next: The 13 greatest tracks by unsung reggae hero Niney the Observer

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